LANDS OF MANY USES

We followed the curving road out, in hopes of setting camp with plenty of time to enjoy a leisurely afternoon. The road had become more congested, littered with families in rented RVs and little experience handling them. We hoped they were at least earning the gratitude of their loved ones, so their terrible driving would be to some end. Suddenly, we heard a thwack on the front of the car, amid a flurry of fleeing birds. We sat silently, for what seemed like a long time. Finally I spoke, "I killed a bird in the Grand Canyon."

PACKING WITHOUT REGRETS

The old man sneered disapprovingly. He spit the words, "This is ridiculous," at me, kneeling on the floor, then claimed his boarding pass and stalked off. I'm a good packer. I've taken a nine-week road trip with just a large duffel bag. Gone away for long weekends armed with only what fit into my purse. So you can imagine my mortification as I desperately attempted to lose 12 pounds in the middle of the San Diego airport.

LIFE ELEVATED

We fashioned a simple meal of sandwiches and whiskey, adding another layer to our ensembles to keep out the cold. Bryce Canyon National Park is a leader in dark sky protection, and on clear nights up to 10,000 stars can be seen from as far as the Andromeda Galaxy. We surveyed the Milky Way, stretched out over the horizon, our view unimpeded by our campfire. The campsites that had earlier felt so close, now barely visible, their fires, satellites, piercing the darkness.

A BARTENDER WALKS INTO AN ARCH, THE SECOND ONE DUCKS

National Parks Pass in our hot little hands, we set out through downtown Moab, marveling at the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of the tourism-based economy. We had a specific loop planned out for our tour, hitting a few vistas and stopping at the Sand Dunes Arch. Even within the small span of the park the landscape was constantly changing from sheer red rock walls to rolling hills dotted with juniper to gray, green and yellow dunes, frozen in time.

CREATION MYTHS, CANYON LANDS AND ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGHS

The rocks of the cliff side whistled and jeered, both mocking and celebrating our presence. The towering spires, remnants of ancient red sand dunes, looked as if an alien forest had left its eulogy in the land itself. The crushing scope was like nothing I'd ever seen; the red spikes climbing up from the valley floor towards us, the vicious gash carved by the Colorado River, the stretch of scrubby grasses and shrubs flowing out past the Six Shooter Mesa in the distance, the slow roll of the sparse clouds on an azure backdrop, all of it incredible.

IGNORING THE HERD

If the utility of a road is compromised due to the whims of bovine, it should not, in fairness, be called a highway. Consider this my formal complaint with the state of New Mexico. The cow strutting out of the darkness before us was such an absurdity we erupted into astonished laughter. Then there was more movement. A group of shadows fell into focus. The laughing stopped.

NATIONAL PARKS ARE COUNTING ON US ALL TO THINK RESPONSIBLY

Take heart, gentle traveler, for there is a way to mindfully take joy in the true national treasures of the United States. The men and women protecting our parks are fighting an uphill battle to protect us from ourselves, and we can help them. Follow the rules posted on the clearly posted signs. They are meant to protect both you and the wildlife. Place trash in proper receptacles. They're everywhere. Adhere to the trails. The maps are free and comprehensive. Do not try to steal the limited, federally-protected nature. Basically, don't be terrible.